Chapter from 'Ulster's White Negroes' by Fionnbarra Ó Dochartaigh
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The following chapter has been contributed by the author, Fionnbarra Ó Dochartaigh, with the permission of the publishers, AK Press. The views expressed in this chapter do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
This chapter is taken from the book:
Ulster's White Negroes:
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On a cold February day in 1968, four women and two men sat in the Corporation Housing Department reception. They were discussing the overall housing situation in the city, and in particular the plight of the four women present, all of whom then lived in flats at Limavady Road. Within the previous few days their landlord had cut off their electricity and they were forced to live in candle-lit rooms and cook on open fires. Their family doctors were concerned at the potential dangers inherent in such intimidatory practices, and all those involved therefore hoped for positive action from the local city council. This was the beginning of the Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC), which grew dramatically from that small group of people which included Mrs McNamee and her friends Mrs Dillon, Mrs Olpherty and Mrs Quigley, all with young families. The two young men were Danny 'The Red' McGinley and an English-born Magee University College lecturer, Stewart Crehan PhD, a member of the Socialist Labour League (later to become the Workers' Revolutionary Party in Britain).
Meetings to organise the homeless were held in flats at Limavady Road, and at Stewart Crehan's small flat at 90 Beechwood Avenue. The inaugural meeting of the DHAC was held at the City Hotel on St Patrick's Day weekend. A resolution was passed urging all present to go to March's monthly meeting of Derry Corporation where they hoped to read a prepared address. If not permitted to do so, they intended to disrupt the proceedings to alert the general public to the plight of hundreds of homeless families. This type of activity was frequently adopted by the DHAC, even up to the final meeting of the old Corporation, which was abolished and replaced by a Commission in March 1969. Few would dispute that the DHAC, and its allies, played a highly significant role in the eventual downfall of that undemocratic and sectarian local assembly.
The first three months of DHAC activity could be described as strictly within the law. I was one of those members who felt strongly that such action was too mild, considering the plight of hundreds of families, across the religious divide, who naturally yearned for the rapid attainment of better living conditions. It was not until a high degree of mobilisation was achieved, through hard daily effort, that such a strategy became possible. This involved extensive leafleting and door-to-door canvassing, with the occasional street-corner meeting. In time, the DHAC leadership began to feel confident enough to embark upon a much more radical programme of action.
The first really militant action took place on June 22nd at 11 am, when a caravan home belonging to a family called Wilson was dragged across the main Lone Moor Road to Guildhall bus route at the junction of Hamilton Street and Ann Street in the nationalist Brandywell district of the city. The Irish Militant newspaper (Vol. III No. 6), published by the Irish Workers' Group later reported:
Mr Wilson, an unemployed labourer, who has not had a job since he returned from England four years ago, said the caravan had no lavatory or running water and when the bed was down the living space for four people was about one square yard. His wife, Billie, said she had recently given birth to a baby which died within eight hours, and according to her doctor this was due to the conditions in which the family lived.There was much local empathy for this particular family and there were no objections from local residents although they suffered some inconvenience as a result of our protests. The mobile dwelling remained an obstruction for some hours on the 22nd, and blocked the road again on the 29th and 30th of the same month.
The local authorities were in no doubt as to the aims and membership of the DHAC. The plan to replace one hard-line Orange Tory with another as mayor, without any changes to the status quo, led to intense vocal protests in the Guildhall council chamber. On the departure of Albert Anderson as mayor it became clear that a new militancy had emerged from the city's slums and ghettos. Frank Curran's book, 'Derry, Countdown to Disaster' (Gill & Macmillan, 1986), notes that: "Nationalist councillor Eugene O'Hare had described the outgoing mayor as 'an implacable, not-an-inch Unionist'."
The mayor symbolised all that the homeless detested about local politics, because he had major powers in the sphere of house building and allocation. These powers were not about to change. Curran's book continues:
The appointment of Anderson's successor as first citizen led to unruly scenes in the Guildhall. When the Unionists proposed councillor William Beatty, people in the crowded gallery hurled abuse at both Anderson and Beatty. Anderson reacted by proposing the council go into committee, with the press being allowed to remain. Public hostility increased and the Unionists called the police. On arrival, they mode it plain they would use force to clear the chamber if necessary. The public agreed to leave, but several men mode it clear by word and gesture that they "were not finished with the Unionist councillors". With the public out, and the doors closed, the Unionists elected Beatty who thus mode history by becoming the first person to be elected mayor in camera.Curran, a veteran journalist, and others were in no doubt as to the sharp spearhead that had been forged some weeks earlier. He comments in his book, written years after the event:
Members of the Derry Housing Action Committee, a new left wing pressure group not to be confused with Father Mulvey's Housing Association, who had been in the public gallery, issued a statement saying that they had withdrawn from the council chamber: "When supporters of the Nationalist Party disrupted the proceedings, we did not want to be involved in another pseudo-sectarian Puck Fair. Furthermore, it is the policy of this Committee to go through all existing channels to have our demands met before taking extreme action. We made our final appeal to the Corporation yesterday. It was totally unsatisfactory."Not long after the 'caravan affair' the authorities were to react by using the legal powers available to them. Eleven leading DHAC activists were singled out for attention, each to receive a summons demanding an appearance before the Bishop Street Court in July. These were listed in the group's newspaper, Reality No. 7, as follows:
George Finnbarr O'Doherty (23) our Hon. Secretary and Editor, John White (21) a leading member of the Young Republican Association; Eamonn McCann (25) a journalist; Eamonn Melaugh (35) a community worker, Matthew O'Leary, an engineer; John Wilson (28) whose family's 'home' had blocked the road; Jeremiah Mallett (43) a life-long labour activist and a leader of the unemployed,. John McShane (35) a Waterside businessman, as well as Pat J. Coyle (33), and Robert Mitchell (19).Reality No. 7 reported also that the only woman to appear was an English woman, Janet Wilcock, who had recently carried the Labour Party standard in the Stormont by-election. It reported that:
All were bound over for a period of two years to keep the peace and Melaugh, McCann, White and Wilson were fined £10 each, and Mitchell and Wilcock £5 each.The Derry Journal of Friday, 7th July 1968 ran the headline: 'Corporation flayed in caravan protest case - patience was exhausted says defence solicitor'. Its front-page story continued:
Members of the DHAC and others who blocked Lecky Road with a caravan as a housing protest recently may have taken the law into their own hands, but their patience was exhausted by the failure of Derry Corporation to remedy the "scandalous" conditions in which the occupants of the caravan had to live, a solicitor told Derry Petty Sessions court yesterday.The DHAC members were ably defended by the republican and civil rights lawyer Kevin Agnew. He ventured the opinion, during a lengthy submission, that they might not have reached the end of the protests because "something had to be done to get a bit of justice from the Guildhall."
The whole incident was yet another small victory for the homeless. The propaganda value increased further when the Wilson family were allocated much more suitable and healthier accommodation at 417 Bishop Street, near their families and friends, yet not far from the mucky lane where their lone caravan home had stood for too long.
If the authorities had hoped to silence the DHAC by using the strong arm of the law, then they knew little of the psychological make-up or political determination of those directly involved. In that respect they failed miserably. Many in the group were both unrepentant and unremitting and one of the most dramatic protests to date took place on the very day the court hearings were in progress. The event was the official opening of the lower deck of Craigavon Bridge, spanning the River Foyle, which divides the city in more ways than one. The mayor and guest dignitaries were confronted by protesters. At a prearranged signal, all sat down on the disused railway tracks, which ran along the centre of the lower deck, effectively blocking a string of quality automobiles. The car owners hoped to be numbered amongst the first-ever to use the new highways following slavishly after the mayor of course.
This defiant handful included J.J. O'Hara, (whose older brother Patsy was to die on hunger strike in Long Kesh in May 1981); Tony O'Doherty, the distribution manager of Reality; Roddy O'Carlin and Neill O'Donnell - both Young Republicans - and lastly Sean McGeehan who was new to the campaigning life. The RUC were taken by surprise, having been outflanked in front of the city's supposed elite. With clearly visible anger they moved briskly to remove the peaceful demonstrators. Now it was the turn of those still standing to play their part. All began to sing a newly-imported song from Black America, 'We Shall Overcome'. As promised, I stepped forward to assume the role of conductor and prompter, as only a few knew the words of the song. During the first verse, RUC personnel rushed towards the small choir and removed me from this cultural activity. The singers bravely continued, with even stronger voices in spite of such philistine interruptions. Reality elaborated:
At this a non-member of the DHAC, one John Lafferty obstructed Sergeant Albert Joseph Taylor in the execution of his duty. His umbrella had been used for purposes other than it had been designed for. All were taken away in police cars and in the less 'comfortable' tenders to the 'Vic'.This primary source informs us also that Neill O'Donnell and Roddy O'Carlin refused to sign a bail bond to 'keep the peace' and so each served a period of one month in HMP Belfast. Their imprisonment was to spark off a chain of protests in many areas, and several radical organisations held pickets in Belfast, London and Cork. On the evening of their eventual release a group of DHAC members and supporters met them at the Waterside railway station, and carried them shoulder high for some distance whilst giving 'victory signs' to the watching police. An informal party awaited them at the Harps Hall, outside which the caravan protest had been held earlier.
Regular picketing of Rachmanites and public buildings continued for several months. Reality, the official organ of the group which began as a duplicated hand-out, was now going up-market, carrying interviews and illustrations. It was kindly printed on the Communist Party presses at their Albert Bridge Road offices in Belfast, a detail known only to the chosen few. This publication was the prime source of fund-raising, at a time when some 1,650 families were listed as homeless. Public meetings were held to increase membership and to keep the families informed of what further actions the Committee intended to take as part of their militant strategy. Rent strikes were also organised so as to force the Rachmanite landlords to install fire escapes in the larger tenement houses and issue all families with rent books, which gave some rights in law.
Many it seemed would never give in to these demands, but as time passed each broke down rather than end up without their rents paid weekly by the homeless. Repairs were also demanded, and one landlord had to put up £1,000 for one of his tenements.The latter was after pressure from the health authorities.
It should be noted that the DHAC described all families on housing waiting lists as 'homeless'. It was felt that this was a correct description insofar as each family wished to have a home of their own. Such housing they felt was being denied them because of blatant religious discrimination, political blocking tactics against proposed developments by various housing associations, and the refusal by Unionist-controlled councils to undertake crash house building programmes.
I travelled widely, sometimes as far away as Dublin, to assist local action committees and address rallies. The people of Tyrone were having their own struggle against acute homelessness and blatant discrimination. The Tyrone activists spoke highly of our activities in Derry and looked to us for guidance and solidarity as our experience and numbers were greater than theirs. In Caledon, Co. Tyrone, the local Republican Club was giving support to homeless Catholic families who had begun to squat in newly-built council houses. In June 1968, a Catholic family was evicted from a council house in which they had been squatting. A nineteen year-old single Protestant, Emily Beattie, secretary to a local Unionist politician, was allocated the house.
As in Derry, the homeless in Tyrone firmly believed that the local Nationalist Party were not prepared to be even good nuisances on their behalf. We collectively held the view that this party was as effective as a chocolate fireguard. I was told that some of the younger members had spirit, yet only one of these, Austin Currie, a Nationalist MP in Stormont, who had been raising the matter, occupied the house in protest and was evicted and fined. His unexpected protest attracted wide publicity and did much to highlight the cause of the homeless, simply because he was an MP. The Campaign for Social justice in Dungannon soon afterwards called on the NICRA executive to hold its first civil rights demonstration, i.e. to change tack and take to the streets. The reason for the protest was to highlight further the sectarian housing policies in Tyrone and elsewhere.
When the CSJ approached the DHAC for support we immediately replied that we would be at the proposed march with our newly painted banners. NICRA reluctantly fell into line. Paisley's UPV immediately called a counter-demonstration and promised violence if the march from Coalisland entered the Market Square, Dungannon. The RUC duly announced that the march would be re-routed from the centre of the town.
So on August 24th we hired a bus to Coalisland as promised. The actual march was a determined yet good humoured affair. It was met by some flag-waving opposition in Dungannon Square which resulted in some minor scuffles. Paisley had mustered some 1,500 UPV counter-demonstrators, many of them members of the B Specials. In the Square they waited to attack the civil rights demonstrators who numbered between 3,000 and 4,000. At the police barriers the march stopped and a rally was held. After the speeches the civil rights leaders advised the marchers to go home. Instead, the majority of the crowd stayed sitting on the road and began to sing or recite poems. Many stayed there quite late into the night until all the counter-demonstrators had gone, some, like Paisley, having to travel as far east as Ballymena. In the main, it was deemed a major success as it passed off peacefully. This was due in no small measure to effective stewarding by some 70 members of the banned Republican Clubs aided by local people.
Three days after the first civil rights march there were angry scenes as the DHAC and its allies in the Londonderry Labour Party continued the class war from the public gallery of Derry Corporation. The interruptions were fierce and many before police rushed to the Guildhall to usher demonstrators towards the hall and doorways. Away from the view of police, Mayor Beatty was jeered and buffeted and after entering his car attempts were made to overturn it. Some thought he looked as if he was having a heart-attack and urged moderation and that he be allowed to escape popular justice. It was certainly a badly shaken and ashen-faced driver that was allowed to move through lines of outraged citizens who continued to insult him by giving him the Nazi salute. Most felt he had been let off too lightly by far. A short time later his Corporation housing sub-committee announced plans to build 505 houses. This was a futile gesture and merely encouraged an intensification of the struggle.
Things were moving quickly towards a more serious phase. On our return from Dungannon the call was made by the DHAC, to the NICRA executive, to host a similar demonstration locally. This in effect would be Derry's first-ever official civil rights demo. The DHAC's status within the broader Six County protest movement was considerable. This was due in no small measure to the existence of several non-paid, full-time officials, including myself. It was viewed as the reformist vanguard, over and above any of the political groupings in the Maiden City. Some of its leaders were part of a wider network of contacts and groups and dialogue was continuous, revolving around social and economic matters of mutual interest at local, regional and national levels. Within the Left there was of course the usual antagonism between those who considered themselves Trotskyites and others whom they termed Stalinists etc. These factional disputes remained genuinely comradely and were not disruptive to the broader movement as a whole. Such finer points of Marxist dogma or strategy were confined to a minority. The rank and file had more pressing matters of concern, to get their very own key and a roof over their heads.
In a matter of a few short weeks plans were being made for the civil rights march. Eventually NICRA's Executive Committee settled a date after consultation with Derry activists: Saturday October 5th was ultimately agreed for the demonstration. The organising meetings were held in the upstairs lounges of either the Grandstand or Lion bars in William Street, and when larger numbers were expected from afar, the venue was moved to the City Hotel (this hotel was next-door to the Guildhall and near the local bus terminals). At one meeting, for demonstration stewards, only 57 attended and the funds for defraying organising expenses initially came out of the local organisers' own pockets. Most of us were unemployed. A couple were mature students like myself (I had returned in September to full-time education to study for an OND in business studies at the Londonderry Technical College, in a bid to get university entry qualifications). Some organisations which had promised financial support failed to deliver, and in consequence we had to return to our class roots. The bulk of the finances required were collected on a door-to-door basis in the working class Creggan estate. The collection books were later to reveal that those who contributed most generously came from the poorer area of the estate, known as 'The Heights'.
At no stage did activities stop merely because of the planned civil rights demo. Indeed, we were conscious of the need to keep up the pressure as a means of mobilising for October, therefore the next regular meeting of the Corporation was again targeted. Our tactics this time would be different however: we were to remain silent until a given signal. As the Corporation reached the end of its agenda, placard sticks were silently pushed through the ornate handles of the chamber's doors. All present were told they could not leave until we said so and that they would listen to the homeless for a change. One Unionist tried to contact police from a phone on the mayor's bench. He and the phone were quickly seized. He was warned, in no uncertain terms, by one of our larger comrades that if he tried that trick again he would have his arm broken. He returned sharpishly to his seat as per instructions. An 84- year-old Unionist former-mayor, who had previously been knighted for his services to the Crown, was permitted to move into an adjoining room after his younger colleagues pleaded with us that the sight before his eyes might be too much for him to bear. The councillors sat fuming. When the Guildhall clock above us loudly struck two bells, we informed all present that the assembly was now dismissed. One Unionist was heard to whisper softly, "the lunatics have taken over the asylum." I tapped his shoulder to politely inform him, "we lunatics are only looking for a bit of civic sanity from you asylum keepers. And if we don't get it soon you'll all be confronting even less controlled lunatics than us." Highly embarrassed at being overheard he mumbled simply, "I suppose you're right." This incident and others I duly noted in my diary at the end of yet another constructive day.
Elsewhere things were moving along smoothly. Placards were being produced by a sub-committee operating from the home of Norman Walmsley, who rented a house at Long Tower Street. Work there often went on well into the early hours. This was particularly true at weekends, and throughout his son and two daughters ably assisted with the art work. Mickey Devine, then not quite 15, was one young person who aided the effort. He knew all about bad housing, having been born on 26th May 1954 at Springtown Camp. He much later married Norman's youngest daughter whom he met at this time. 'Red Mickey' was to be the last of ten heroic prisoners-of-war who died on hunger-strike in 1981, in their bid to win five basic demands. This 'placards' sub-committee was instructed by two of the key organisers as to what the slogans should be. These slogans reflected what seemed then to be mere utopian dreams. The reality was that Derry was hoping to stretch the civil rights demands and present these as short, sharp slogans, easily understood by the person-in-the-street. 'Proportional Representation' or just 'PR' was one that was indeed short, but would have major long-term implications. All concerned, however, remained ever mindful of the need not to antagonise the NICRA leadership in Belfast who would not see the slogans until the scheduled march assembled.
Little did the bulk of those preparing for the march realise that October 5th 1968 would be entered in the pages of history as a major watershed, or that at long last the local people of Derry would arise from almost fifty years of relative slumber. It should be remembered that the march nearly never happened. A few days before the scheduled date, Home Affairs Minister William Craig banned the march. I personally was delighted at his stupid over-reaction as I knew this would result in increased publicity and a larger turnout. Leading members of NICRA's executive panicked. They were quickly on the phone, arranging a meeting at the City Hotel which had Fred Heatley, from Belfast, in the chair. The Derry organisers were instructed to inform their respective organisations and supporters to be at the hotel on the evening of October 4th.
At the meeting the executive attempted to convince local activists that the march should be abandoned. Dungannon, they argued, had been legal. Calling off the march would have put the local protest movement further back than it was when it first emerged a handful of years before. Several people like me felt that the bubble would eventually burst, and we were merely assisting fate to decide the time and place to stick the pin. More felt that a U-turn could only benefit the Stormont regime and that only international outrage would ever force a British government, Tory or Labour, to act on our justified demands. The proceedings lasted about two hours and were attended by about 70 people. The debate was heated and frequently punctuated by applause. There was at least one adjournment as members of NICRA's executive went into conclave. The respective Derry groups followed this example and held our own counter-conclaves. The key Derry organisers held firm. The NICRA executive broke ranks after it was made clear in a speech from the floor by Eamonn McCann that we would march without them. All the spokespersons, like good politicians, emerged from the meeting saying that in the final analysis it was "unanimously decided to proceed from the railway station to The Diamond on the route scheduled."
What the NICRA executive had belatedly realised was already knowledge to a handful of the local organisers, i.e. that Stormont wasn't bluffing about meeting our reformist movement head-on. They were determined, in our opinion, to make it impossible for a peaceful righting of wrongs. This was not to be a well-conducted trade union march that merely wished to obtain short-term benefits for workers temporarily upset with capitalism. It was a demo organised for long-term social and economic objectives that would undermine, if not destroy completely, the Stormont status quo. What passed for reform in Britain was being viewed as revolutionary by die-hard 'not-an-inch' Unionist ministers. The regular arrests, which included McCann and myself, gave other key organisers a sense of the fearful anticipation that was building up behind the scenes. The colder than usual demeanour of District Inspector Ross McGimpsey pointed to things getting very hot indeed. In his upstairs office at the rear of the old Victoria Barracks, he acted the civilised state official as, on more than one occasion, he served us up white coffee with sugar and jaffa cakes. I was pulled in that often he knew how much milk and sugar I liked, when he poured, and how partial I was to the RUC's jaffa cakes. Although not one to smile much, if at all, he was looking more and more like a man under strong political pressure as the march date approached. Even a blind man would have sensed that the Stormont elite were not at all amused. It was this DI McGimpsey who was clearly seen using his black-thorn stick to impress upon the natives his hostility to their demands. The Dl's attitude had been barely concealed during previous visits to his office. His ruthless conduct was dramatically captured by the television cameras for posterity, as he lost his cap as well as his cool. The fact that the organisers would never enter his police barracks voluntarily, when politely requested, was always a source of annoyance to him. This was shown at the end of each cat-and-mouse game which involved his uniformed and plain-clothes men being deployed to 'bring in' selected civil rights organisers.
After our homes or our usual haunts had been visited, they would tour the streets, from which we would be picked up, more often than not, while chin-wagging with somebody, or on the way to yet another meeting with the homeless, unemployed or Labour Party etc. (There was always a daily flurry of activity within and between these respective organisations, and the key figures of each were in constant dialogue). The end result of the police chase would always be the same - when we mice were cornered, we would go quietly. The Dl's agenda over coffee was usually associated with possible alternative routes. All too frequent reminders were given of the far reaching provisions of the Special Powers Act. We were usually also told of the alleged fears of local businessmen and their organisations, and how they believed that 'certain marches' would seriously undermine commercial activity if permitted to proceed within the centre of the city. In effect we were being asked to put individual profits before collective rights. There was little doubt that after each meeting at Victoria Barracks the phones would be humming at RUC headquarters in Lisburn, and subsequently Stormont Castle.
Based on the experiences of these involuntary encounters over coffee, it soon became abundantly clear that there should be a maximum mobilisation of media personnel at Duke Street, in the Waterside, on that Saturday afternoon of October 5th. By prior arrangement several were to point their cameras from upper floor windows, while others would be at the front and rear of the demonstration. Thus, this time at least, the outside world would have a unique opportunity of seeing at first hand how the nationalist minority and other disaffected sections of the proletariat were being treated in a supposedly democratic-pluralist society, for which Britain was ultimately responsible.
The Derry Labour Party reflected the views and mood of all local activists in a press statement:
We welcome the unanimous decision of the meeting to adhere to the original plan. We greet this as a decision by the working class of Derry in all its organisations to assert their rights, come hell, high water or Herr William Craig. No-one has the right to decide where, when and by what route the working people of Derry shall assert their fundamental right to walk through their own city. No-one will set a limit to the march of our class. We are not asking for our rights, we are taking them, and we ask the people of Derry to come with us.The night before the march an English-born woodwork teacher gave me a crash helmet, at the back of which he painted an eye. He said he wouldn't be marching as it might affect his job prospects, but that he and his wife believed I should wear it as they didn't trust the RUC to act like British bobbies. I had stayed at another address the night before the demo and awoke wondering if the other organisers had been taken from their own beds and held. I feared that I might be alone, and could be seized on the way to the assembly point and that those assembled would be left totally leaderless and confused, and could thus be easily dispersed. I wondered if the full complement of the NICRA executive would even turn up; I felt I knew which ones most certainly would.
I checked a lot of things by phone. The promised three Labour Party MPs had flown in to act as 'observers' in spite of the rising tension. These included Anne Kerr, member for Rochester; her husband Russell Kerr, member for Feltham, Middlesex; and John Ryan, member for Uxbridge. They had been invited over by Gerry Fitt, MP for West Belfast. Surely now, some people remarked on the phone, the police would think twice about attacking the march. They had hoped Bill Craig, who was reputed to be a heavy drinker, wasn't drunk when he gave final instructions to the police. My retort was that whatever happened, one could hardly blame alcohol as bigots were eternally drunk with hate. Many failed to understand the distinction between parliament and the state, and had overrated the importance of MPs. An assortment of the far right Monday Club of Liverpool, the Murray Club and some other sections of the local Orange Order had met and caught taxis at the railway station to be left off at the Apprentice Boys' Memorial Hall, just inside the ancient walls. It was their supposed planned opposition and previous press release that gave the Minister of Home Affairs his much needed excuse to ban the demo. October 5th had never been a traditional Orange marching day, no doubt Craig also knew that this was all a bluff. Kevin Agnew in a letter to the Derry journal, published three days later, remarked:
Everyone knows that there was no intention on the port of the Apprentice Boys to hold a march from Waterside railway station to their hall off Bishop Street. I need not waste time and space on this aspect.Many Protestants were also homeless and had been assisted by the DHAC. Several were to comment privately that it was paradoxical for the Orange Order to claim to defend religious and civil liberties, yet allow their name to be associated with a hard-line minority engaged in the mechanics of their denial. Only liberally-minded Protestants expected anything better from that quarter as their propaganda was never taken very seriously by those in the working class ghettos. We viewed them as similar to the KKK - so bare-faced and confident enough in the bigoted status quo that they wore bowler hats and sashes rather than white robes and pointed hoods. That for generations they had insisted in strutting through Catholic areas, playing sectarian tunes, gesturing and being foul-mouthed (with full police back-up) reveals what the Black and Orange movements are really all about!
As I arrived at the railway station most of my earlier fears soon disappeared as I recognised several friendly faces. Soon I saw my mother and father, both now 'senior citizens' and my youngest brother near the gates. We exchanged concerned glances, as my mother pointed from right to left at several grey-haired people in the assembling crowd, and even some youngsters. Someone I recognised from my BSR factory days shouted, "fasten that helmet, you'll be needing that eye on the back." With my crash helmet firmly strapped, I strolled around observing as the crowd gathered, in time growing to between 350 and 400. Across the river some 10,000 people were gathering for a football match at Brandywell. There was no promised counter-demonstration as I expected. Some 250 police were on duty in the immediate vicinity of the railway station. They had blocked off Distillery Brae with a rope, making it obvious that this first part of the route into Spencer Road was being denied us. To reinforce this point a barricade of police tenders was drawn up behind the rope. It was evident that they wished the march to flow along Duke Street, which in those days offered neither a lane nor an alleyway as a potential exit point.
The tension increased as the RUC made an eleventh-hour appeal. County Inspector William Meharg read the prohibition order to the crowd: "We want to give a warning specially to those who are not interested, for their own safety and the safety of women and children." His message needed no elaboration.
The historian Fred Heatley, the NICRA treasurer, said: "The whole issue is now in the hands of the police. They might let us through, they may try to stop us. If there is any trouble in Derry the blame rests solely with Bill Craig (Home Affairs Minister). We are prepared for a peaceful march."
We organisers quickly regrouped. A last-minute decision was made to switch the route from Distillery Brae and Spencer Road to Duke Street. The police must have assumed that we would take the Distillery Brae route and confront them there. If we had, there were several more points of exit. There was an immediate and hasty change of action on the part of the police as their riot squads jumped into tenders and drove to block off the mouth of Duke Street at its junction with Craigavon Bridge. By the time we reached that police line the parade, led by the 'Civil Rights' banner carried by DHAC members, had grown to around one thousand strong. The 'Fifty Days Revolution', which would end with the Six Counties' biggest ever programme of reform had begun.
In as orderly a fashion as possible we moved slowly while keeping up our spirits and strengthening our resolve by singing 'We Shall Overcome'. We were conscious that immediately behind us the police were on foot and their large water cannon began to move after us as we progressed towards Craigavon Bridge. It was as if we were caught in a long tunnel with both ends effectively blocked, turning it into a human trap. It was not a nice experience, yet there was no choice. It had to be endured as bravely as possible as part payment for a degree of social justice.
We were stopped at the end of the street. As the opposing sides clashed there was a scuffle during which Gerry Fitt MP was targeted. He was the first to suffer a head wound from a police baton. Other politicians under the leading banner were also struck, but not as seriously. Fitt was whisked away by police to their Strand Road barracks and then taken to hospital. The majority of the crowd were unaware of what had happened as the police action had occurred in a few brief seconds. NICRA leaders began to address the crowd. Fred Heatley, NICRA treasurer, and Erskine Holmes from the Belfast NILP were seized by police and placed under custody in a tender. The prime organisers moved towards the middle of the march so as to better observe and decide on what tactics to adopt. Attempts to break through the police lines failed and the marchers began to chant "Sieg Heil!" For half an hour the position remained static. As the marchers held a meeting on the spot, police formed another barricade at the rear of the parade, packing us more tightly into their repressive tunnel.
Several speakers, including the Stormont MP for the city, Eddie McAteer, spoke to the crowd and made appeals to the police for common sense. Other voices raised included those of Austin Currie MP, Ivan Cooper (whom I first met when he was a leading Young Unionist before being converted to socialism and the NILP), and Eamonn Melaugh of the DHAC. I remember also Betty Sinclair, secretary of Belfast Trade Council speaking, and that her strange advice then was to "Go home" just before all hell let loose.
Police and marchers clashed brutally and bloodily within seconds of the last speaker's words being uttered. We had advanced into a wall of police and tenders, with only our fists and feet against batons and strong water jets. Martin Cowley, an 18-year old reporter with the Derry journal was viciously attacked even while he held a notebook in his hand and was shouting "Press, Press!" Other pressmen were to report seeing an obviously pregnant woman kicked, a small boy that just managed to escape and other uncivilised conduct amid the blood and confusion. Shop keepers dragged the injured indoors to give what first-aid they could before later managing to get them through the police lines to hospital. People caught up in the police onslaught screamed as they tried to get away and Eddie McAteer shouted at police as we both witnessed a woman being struck in the mouth by a baton.
The police water cannons were now brought into action and rather than stay still, these were driven through the crowd at speed. Both their jets were spraying at full pressure, enough to throw someone off their feet and push them along bodily for some distance. Behind these came a large number of Stormont's storm troopers, all wearing their brand new steel-helmets with shining black batons swinging. The fact that the force was more than 90 per cent Unionist could account for the partisan viciousness displayed, although two Catholic policemen were said later to have been in charge of at least one water cannon. Now the assault came from both ends of Duke Street as we marchers broke up in a desperate bid to find a way through the police barricades.
The water cannon continually swept both sides of the street. Media personnel who could be identified were particular targets. One water cannon, on returning from the bridge, elevated its line of fire to direct a jet through an open window on the first floor of a house where a television cameraman was filming the proceedings. It then returned again to Craigavon Bridge, with its jets hosing the footpaths. Even the afternoon shoppers, who had not taken part in our demonstration, were not to be spared. Hundreds were sprayed and soaked, including women accompanied by young children or babes in arms. I remember the water being brownish and foul smelling, and it certainly wasn't drinking water. Even as far as the roundabout on the city side of the bridge, more than a quarter of a mile from Duke Street, many were outraged at being caught in the deluge. Stormont had given the green light to their Orange bullies. They had been let loose and everywhere was their playground, and their immediate superiors, including DI McGimpsey, showed no intention of flashing the red stop sign.
Meanwhile, the bitter clash continued in Duke Street. As a result of police action about thirty people were treated in hospital for head wounds before we marchers finally dispersed. Several sought attention in their own homes, shop doorways or made their way to the City Hotel. The number of injured was later put as high as 88. However, either through accident or design, none of the British Labour MPS were seriously hurt. They were brave enough to go to the main hospital to watch and interview the injured being brought in. They told the press that they were shocked at what they had witnessed and would not care to comment further until they had made a full report to Jim Callaghan, then Labour Home Secretary. Anne Kerr MP was less restrained and explained how she had escaped into a cafe, after being soaked. She spoke of young girls, drenched and injured, entering the same cafe before adding: "The police were grinning and appeared to be enjoying their work."
Next morning, readers of the influential Sunday paper, The Observer, were presented with a major report on page 2, written by Mary Holland. She was unique insofar as she seemed to be the only English journalist who had previously bothered to enquire about the realities of life in this region. The civil rights cause had found an influential supporter as her pen was drawn into action on the side of democratic progress. She hastily sent her report after the baton charges at Duke Street. It arrived in time to roll off the presses during the pre-dawn hours. Its headlines read: 'JOHN BULL'S WHITE GHETTOS - Reporting on Ulster's homeless; Houses in N. Ireland are a crucial political weapon, and people don't get houses if they don't vote the right way." She had accurately aimed her literary hammer and thus hit the nail well and truly on the head for her, mainly English, liberally-minded readership.
That same Sunday was not a day of rest for either the RUC or large numbers of youthful citizens. I arose early so as to be washed and dressed and have a hearty breakfast before my expected visitors arrived. They came early as usual and looked in a foul mood, as if something had kept them awake most of the night after the previous day's hard work. Others were carrying out similar visitations at the respective abodes of the two Eamonns. So, within minutes we were well and truly lodged in a large basement cell at Victoria barracks. They had gone to some trouble before our arrival, arranging a special court and preparing charges which claimed that we had broken the order imposing a ban on processions and meetings in the scheduled area, i.e. Duke Street. Some hours after all this legal business we were escorted onto the footpath outside. We had been legally processed, being "remanded on bail to Derry Petty Sessions on October 21st by the Resident Magistrate, Mr J. M. Shearer, on bail."
Derry was in uproar since the Duke Street assaults. The night before had witnessed yet more baton charges as crowds were attacked in William Street. There were running battles with the police in Little James Street and in all about twenty were treated in hospital. Two were detained, a young boy and a policeman. The sound of breaking glass and the scream of the crowds echoed throughout this working class area until the crowds finally dispersed about 3.30 am on that Sunday morning.
Later that same day trouble again flared in The Diamond area, the spot from which the civil rights marchers had been banned the previous day. Widespread violence occurred again after tea-time as the evening began. Large numbers of riot squad police with shields were deployed at Butcher Gate, an entry point to the old city and The Diamond which stands at its centre. Some 800 young people engaged the police at nearby Fahan Street and water cannon were again in action in an attempt to dampen down the situation in the Lecky Road. Other ancient gates were sealed off by the RUC. Shortly the fighting intensified as the main crowd grew to over 1000, many using steel rods, bricks and bottles to defend themselves. Timber barricades were constructed on Sackville Street in an effort to stop the police advances into the Bogside. Water cannon were used to smash another barricade in Rossville Street followed by a strong force of well-equipped police who were showered with stones. Petrol bombs appeared for the first time, mainly reserved for hurling at RUC Land Rovers. Over a dozen youths were treated in hospital. One newspaper reporter wrote: "blood-stained youths being led from the battle area were a common sight."
Meanwhile, Home Affairs Minister Willie Craig was seeing Reds who had dared to come from under their beds, and talked endlessly about the "pink IRA", (a change, some noted, from seeing pink elephants). This was the strangest of all his Vatican-inspired papist plots which linked the Communist Parties of Ireland and Britain, their supposed Trotskyite fellow-travellers, the Chief-of-Staff of the IRA, whom he claimed was at Duke Street, and any number of fantasies for the world media. The alleged IRA chief had been in Dublin, at least 150 miles away, and his main concern, according to those pressmen who met him, was to get his car properly repaired. For Craig, anything and everything was to blame except the real cause of discontent and protest - lack of proper housing, electoral gerrymandering plus sectarian practices and planning in the spheres of employment and economic development. These claims were all deemed to be irrelevant and false, and not to be considered for foreign reportage. We received descriptions of his every mood-swing, often within hours, for some journalists who met him would meet some of us later that night or next day and talk freely of their encounters with the 'hard man of Unionism'.
Banner headlines on October 8th showed that Westminster could no longer afford to ignore N. Ireland, discussion of which was a major taboo on the floor of the House of Commons. The Derry Journal of that Tuesday morning spoke of 'Dramatic development as city assesses cost of week-end disturbances - WILSON CALLS O'NEILL FOR TALKS ON DERRY SITUATION - Callaghan asked for full report.' Its front page also carried the story that "trouble flared up on Sunday in The Diamond and last night when a crowd of about 100 young people threw up a barricade at the foot of Fahan Street and threw petrol bombs at police Land Rovers patrolling the area." It was now clear that the people had not run home from Duke Street and forgotten all about their demands for civil rights as the Unionist elite had hoped. A few column inches away, the same mayor of Derry, councillor William Beatty, who turned both a deaf ear and a blind eye to the homeless, got another headline. He had reluctantly agreed to meet the press, but "the press were not allowed to ask questions when he faced them in the Guildhall council chamber yesterday." He merely wished to emphasise the present and future economic development plans for Derry and the North West. He then delivered an appeal calling for an end to the unrest to the assembled newspaper, radio and television representatives from many parts of Britain and Ireland. Despite his original ban on them, reporters tried to ask questions. When asked by one reporter if his plans for the future dealt with electoral reform, "the mayor waved his hand and did not reply. When another reporter asked if the mayor was reluctant to answer questions because he represented only 30 per cent of the citizens, the mayor again raised his hand and signalled that the interview was over."
On the afternoon of October 9th three thousand students at Queen's University in Belfast, both Catholic and Protestant, decided to march in protest against police brutality in Derry. On the morning after the march, a mass meeting of students decided to establish a new organisation, People's Democracy. PD, which was to become the socialist wing of the civil rights movement, believed in direct action and warned that the Catholic middle class would try to sell out the civil rights struggle.
The City Hotel, on the evening of October 9th, became the venue for an unadvertised meeting, the origin of which is still surrounded in some mystery a quarter of a century later. It had not been called after any formal meeting or as a result of any agreed strategy on the part of the original organisers of the banned Duke Street demonstration. It was supposed to be merely a gathering of concerned citizens to discuss the local situation, as far as I was led to believe. Certainly at least two individuals are suspected of secretly lowering the drawbridge to admit others into a leadership role. The real facts are unclear however as to who actually made these arrangements in the few days following the march. The end result was the creation of the more broadly-based Derry Citizens' Action Committee (DCAC). At some point during the general discussion, which I deliberately did not attend, Eamonn McCann, who until then presided, left the assembly abruptly, declaring that he refused to accept membership of the new body. This shows clearly that the radicals had no agreed strategy on the way forward, and had become disorientated in the immediate aftermath of the dramatic march. McCann went public and castigated this development as "the kiss of death for the developing radical movement in Derry". The 'substantial citizens' whom he felt had jumped adroitly on the bandwagon, he painted as "middle class, middle aged, and middle of the road gentlemen". I was instinctively against any broadening of the original committee and had believed that the October 9th event was to be a useless debating exercise in which some pillars of society would merely warn against taking dangerous roads before retiring to the bar for a G&T to arrange their next golf-outing, or discuss their last package holiday.
That night I had surprising reports by phone that at least three prominent pro-civil rights Protestants, one a solicitor, had readily accepted membership and that all the remaining original organisers were prepared to give the new creation the benefit of the doubt. It was interesting that these included other members of the Londonderry Labour Party, of which McCann was the most prominent member. It clearly was not a total take-over and would not have worked if such a step had been attempted. I decided not to be a hurler on the ditch, or a purist in the wilderness and so joined the DCAC by invitation at its second meeting. I later became its education officer and honorary secretary. Most of the new arrivals in the aftermath of the march had played a role in the development of bodies such as the Credit Union or, like the Protestant solicitor Claude Wilton had been active in liberal politics, or had a track record of activity in related areas. They were part of the predominant reaction in Derry which was one of shock at state violence. They were disturbed at the scale of violence unleashed against the very victims of political, economic and social injustice. Even peaceful protest was forbidden in the city centre and, like the majority of Derry citizens, they felt further angered and diminished by such restrictions.
Elected to membership of the DCAC and subsequently elected as officers were Ivan Cooper (chair), John Hume (vice chair), Michael Canavan (secretary), James Doherty (treasurer), Campbell Austin (press officer who resigned at an early stage), Paul Grace (chief steward), Patrick L. Doherty (subsequently chief steward), John Patton (subsequently press officer), Finnbarr O'Doherty (subsequently education officer), Claude Wilton, William Kelsall, William Breslin, Brendan Hinds, Eamonn Melaugh, Dermot McClenaghan and John White. The last five named, and myself had been on the original organising committee of the October 5th demonstration.
The DCAC decided to develop a gradual programme of action both to build support and to explain the necessity for such action. Its activity was to prove crucial to winning long-awaited reforms. It was to remain in existence until shortly after the dramatic events of August 1969. Recorded minutes of meetings ceased after May 30th, around the same time as a meeting with the Prime Minister at Stormont Castle was being finalised. The homeless revolt now became absorbed into what had emerged as a mass movement, and its spearhead locally was primarily the DCAC. Against this backcloth of dramatic mass demonstrations for a fuller package of reform, the single-issue of housing and homelessness was to remain high on the agitational agenda, as the DHAC maintained both its independence and identity.
During October the DCAC had opened offices at William Street to take statements from all those injured by police action during the October 5th demo. I assisted in the collection of this vital documentation which would in time reveal to the world the full extent of that state-sponsored brutality. The real figure of those injured at the Duke Street march was in the region of 88 people, most of whom did not go to hospital fearing arrest. A statement released by the same hospital authorities alleged that "only minimum action was used by the police.'
The DCAC decided to organise a public meeting in the Guildhall Square on Saturday 19th. Its first press release called for restraint and promised to place a programme of action before the public: "The Committee is confident that its composition presents a strong hope for real change in our city. We guarantee a programme of positive action to achieve a united city where all men are equal." Prior to the sit-down, Campbell Austin, its press secretary and a leading Unionist business- man, resigned. He opposed such tactics and viewed sitting down in Guildhall Square as being "too militant". I wrote in my diary, "perhaps he prefers the Croppies to lie down."
The protest of October 19th was advertised as a 'sit-down' to signify to the authorities, and a watching world, the peaceful intent of the organisers and their supporters. Liberal, Labour and Conservative party HQs were requested to send observers. First-aid groups, St John Ambulance and Knights of Malta agreed to attend the sit-down. 400-500 stewards were recruited 'to control the rally', each being given an armband and coming under the control of Paul Grace, the chief steward. On the day, some 5,000 attended in spite of acute tension throughout the city. Each speaker delivered an analysis of one particular cause of discontent and linked these to the specific demands for reform. I spoke on the Special Powers Act and the denial of basic freedoms. Others on the panel addressed such topics as the lack of adequate housing, the demand for One Man - One Vote, the need for industrial development, the desire for boundary extension and community relations. The police kept their distance but sealed off Derry's walls with tenders and heavily armed reinforcements were stationed in side streets. The well attended protest, which had opened with a rendition of 'We Shall Overcome' closed without incident. The committee, local press and local observers noted the excellent performance of stewards and the public, and so it became clear that conflict could be avoided if the RUC continued to keep their distance and respected the basic rights of assembly and freedom of speech.
On October 21st, the DCAC decided to present a report to the public at Derry Guildhall at the end of the month and not to open negotiations with the authorities at that juncture. It was also agreed that all fifteen members of the committee would lead a linked-arms march on Saturday November 2nd, at 3pm. The route would be from the Waterside railway station to The Diamond via Duke Street, Craigavon Bridge, and Carlisle Road. At The Diamond it was intended to read the Declaration of Human Rights. The RUC were notified of the committee's intentions and it was decided that no other activity would be held prior to November 2nd.
On October 26th the committee issued a statement which invited the public to line the footpaths and assemble at The Diamond. The intention was that only the committee were to march in the middle of the road, three abreast. If the police attacked it was decided to offer no resistance, and if further progress became impossible the DCAC members would sit down and invite the public to do likewise. On the same day a peaceful march along the fourteen miles of road from Strabane to Derry was attacked at the village of Bready and later at Magheramason by some 400 loyalist counter-demonstrators. Banners were snatched and all eleven marchers were injured. Two were hospitalised. Only seven reached Guildhall Square to deliver their letter to the mayor.
The DCAC began attracting considerable assistance from the Northern Ireland Society of Labour Lawyers, (NISLL) which also provided observers at all mass demonstrations organised by the DCAC. The NISLL team was engaged with the DCAC in preparing documentation and preparing defence briefs. It was with some relief that this distinguished body, in a face to face meeting, agreed that they would undertake the defence of Eamonn McCann, Eamonn Melaugh and myself. We were due to eventually appear in court on charges relating to the organising of the parade on October 5th. We stressed that we would be making no apologies and that every effort must be made to highlight the social and economic conditions that took us on the road to Duke Street in the first instance. Such a stance, we were informed, might carry a high cost, which we felt would be well worth it to alert the world to the realities of life here. We were told that the defence team would be led by Martin McBirney QC, paradoxically the senior Crown prosecutor for Belfast, and that he would be assisted by a team of barristers and solicitors from the NISLL. We had no doubt that the outside world was watching. The committee frequently received requests for interviews from the foreign media. Derry-born Moira Hegarty O'Scannlain, based in San Francisco, was a welcome visitor. She conveyed fraternal greetings from Citizens for Irish justice, an organisation which was established after the October 5th demo. Solidarity messages were also brought from several other bodies which spoke of contact being made with U Thant, Secretary General of the United Nations, Irish and British Ambassadors to the UN, President Johnson, Queen Elizabeth and Harold Wilson.
By the end of October there were unprecedented scenes at the monthly meeting of Derry Corporation. The chant of "Civil Rights" echoed through the Guildhall. There was an 'invasion' of the council chamber by people in the public gallery, one of whom occupied the mayor's chair, which the mayor had vacated during one of two adjournments of the meeting; a brief struggle between two Unionist members and nationalist Alderman Hegarty when the latter tried to wrest the chairmanship from the mayor; a sit-down in the corridor outside the council chamber and the calling of the police to clear the public gallery.
The spark this time was the refusal of the Unionist majority on the council to receive a Derry Labour Party deputation at the meeting to discuss the housing situation in the city. Some fifty people, including DHAC members, crowded the small public gallery. At the outset of the meeting, as the town clerk (Mr R. H. Henderson) was starting the business on the agenda, all the nationalist members immediately rose and shouted "Civil Rights!" The majority of them had been anywhere else other than Duke Street on October 5th, but then this was politics, as Gerry Fitt would have put it. We in the gallery joined in the chant. When this finished Alderman Hegarty, amid applause and before the business could continue, began a lengthy address to all present. The applause began after his first few lines: "Mr Beatty, we can never again address as 'Mr Mayor' any individual who is a representative of minority rule in this city - not that very many more, if any, minority mayors will occupy the mayoral chair in this Guildhall".
The scene was like something I remembered from the films on the French Revolution, and the atmosphere was truly electric and exhilarating. The masses were speaking, and their former undemocratic masters were now in the public dock. Other councillors such as James Redmond Doherty spoke, with the mayor interrupting him saying they must proceed with the agenda. He failed to see what the real business of the day was all about and that his agenda was now totally insignificant. He insisted, "We are going to do the business of the meeting." Some of the public shouted, "Impostor" and another voice was heard, "Send for your riot squad". As the tension mounted, the mayor and Unionist councillors went out of the council chamber after declaring an adjournment. Immediately some of the protesters occupied the seats left vacant as they had threatened to if the Unionists left the chamber. The chairman of the DHAC, Eamonn Melaugh, occupied the mayoral chair, and said: "I ask you citizens of Derry, do you approve of a crash programme of 2,000 houses?" There were cries of "Yes". He then asked, "Do we extend the boundary? - Yes". Before leaving the chair he commented, "This is democracy!"
A teach-in was now being conducted in the public gallery, with references being made to a married couple with three children, who lived in a room 9 feet by 10 feet with several of the protesters saying there were many families in similar situations. The mayor returned. He wanted the proceedings to go into committee. There was opposition from the nationalist benches and slow hand claps from the public. As the Unionist majority voted to adjourn, a struggle ensued between Alderman Hegarty and the mayor over who should occupy the chair. Other Unionists went to the mayor's aid, as he resisted being pushed out of it. A great deal happened during the unfolding drama which did not end even when the RUC arrived. The public gallery was gradually vacated without a struggle. The Unionists then returned yet again to begin to discuss their original agenda 'in committees - an hour and three-quarters after they first assembled. The protesters gathered on the steps leading to the assembly hall and continued their teach-in which broke up peacefully at 2pm. The Unionists however finally agreed to receive the Labour deputation to discuss housing and other social problems, at a special meeting the following Friday.
November opened with a request from the RUC to meet DCAC officials on the morning of the proposed march at 9.45 am. This was agreed to. The police would be told that we planned to march regardless of yet another supposed counter-demonstration, this time by a group using the name 'Loyal Sons'. They would also be told that the committee planned a mass march on November 16th, and that invited organisations would include all branches of NICRA. November 2nd dawned, again with some apprehension. A change in the order of the marchers was agreed. The DCAC executive would be in front to deal at once with difficulties that might arise. Labour Lawyers would be on hand to offer advice as difficulty was expected at Ferryquay Gate. Frank Curran's book graphically described the events of that day:
On 2nd November, watched by a silent disciplined crowd of about 4,000, the DCAC marched the route proscribed on 5th October. The object was to establish the right of a non-Orange march to parade peacefully through the streets. The police remained inactive, and threats by Ian Paisley's side-kick, Major Ronald Bunting, that the march would be resisted, led to nothing more than isolated scuffles at the Derry end of Craigavon Bridge. The Committee emphasised that the march again proved that public demonstrations need not lead to disorder as long as they were properly organised and police and hard-line Unionists made no moves to oppose them. (Derry, Countdown to Disaster', p90)We had reached The Diamond and had our speeches. The Human Rights Declaration was read by an 11 year-old boy as a symbol of the future we wished to create for the next generation. The DCAC, following the end of the march, issued a brief but highly significant statement: "The universal right of any citizen to march through Derry, so unjustly denied us on 5th October, has been clearly established."
On Armistice Day, November 11th, more summonses were delivered to the two Eamonns and myself relating to defying the ban at the October 5th demo. The net was widened that day to include some forty-three others with Ivan Cooper and Eddie McAteer MP, the nationalist opposition leader at Stormont, being added to the list.
Two days later an emergency meeting of the Committee was called for 5.30 pm in the office of Cllr James Doherty to discuss the position arising out of the ban imposed by Home Affairs Minister William Craig on all processions and meetings within Derry Walls. It was decided to send a telegram to the British Prime Minister asking for protection to enjoy fundamental human rights. A press statement was issued clarifying the situation. It was also agreed to carry on with preparations for the planned march of November 16th. In case of dawn arrests it was decided that each member would appoint a personal delegate to guarantee that the march would go ahead.
The day before the mass demonstration there was a major turn-out of stewards. It was decided that appointed members of the DCAC would attempt a symbolic confrontation with the police at the barriers, which would be erected because of the minister's ban. The executive would not decide until the eleventh hour between Duke Street or Spencer Road as an appropriate route. History was about to repeat itself, this time as farce. A press statement was released expressing the wish that only those intent on a peaceful non-provocative march would be welcome in the city next day. An attempt at mediation with the authorities by all the main local churchmen had proven unsuccessful. The two Bishops, Dr Farren and Dr Tyndall announced that special vigils for peace would be held at the Protestant and Catholic cathedrals from 10 pm until 6 am. Civil rights leaders and supporters, with clergy and faithful of different religions, participated throughout the eight hours intercession. This march had caused acute tension. It would later be seen as a high Point or watershed that occurred on Day 42 of the Fifty-Day Revolution'.
The Committee decided at 1 pm to stop 30 yards from police barriers while Ivan Cooper addressed the police. At all costs the majority were determined to avoid a full frontal confrontation. A minority on the left, which included myself, felt that one way or another Craig's ban would have to be broken and soon. The mood of the people was equally militant. If the police refused us permission to march further, then four committee men would be instructed to climb over the barriers and symbolically break the law. A meeting would be held on the bridge and the speakers would be Messrs, I. Cooper, J. Hume, F. O'Doherty, Jas Doherty and C. Wilton. The body of the march was to be kept informed by loudspeakers mounted on a lorry. Then we would disperse, peacefully. At least that was the plan!
That Saturday afternoon a huge gathering, estimated at 20,000 people, assembled at Duke Street to march over the October 5th route, led by DCAC members. The vast concourse was blocked by the double line of barricades erected at Carlisle Circus, behind which a large force of police stood guard, leaving only the route to Guildhall Square via John Street open. RUC County Inspector Paul Kerr was placed in command of these visibly terrified state forces. He reminded us all of Craig's ban on demos inside the Walls. Ivan Cooper and John Hume then called on the police to allow the marchers to proceed but senior police officers refused to comply. At this point Michael Canavan, Johnny White, Dermot McClenaghan and Willie Breslin put the next stage of the prearranged plan into operation. They symbolically broke the law as they climbed over the first line of barricades without opposition but were repulsed at the second barricade by the police. Regrouping they charged forward again, eventually breaching the barricade line.
Some would later claim that "the marchers, satisfied that the symbolic breach had made the civil rights case, then streamed down John Street towards Guildhall Square." This was not what I remember or recorded at the time. I was speaking on the platform while the symbolic breach was being made and explaining what was happening to the crowd. Many were extremely angry, heckling, booing and calling, in no uncertain terms and in the most floral of language to "Move forwards", "Sweep the pigs aside, we have the numbers now!"
Loyalists around a Union jack tossed stones at the demonstrators from the RUC side of the barriers yet the police remained inactive. Stewards led marchers to John Street away from the planned route. Large numbers of marchers broke away and advanced up Bridge Street towards Ferryquay Gate and the walled city. There were fierce clashes with right wing loyalists which lasted half an hour before police and their Orange allies were swept aside by sheer force of numbers. Derry's Diamond was thus occupied and the police made for the shelter of Shipquay Street. At 4.45 pm the RUC commanders ordered a complete retreat.
At The Diamond a few of the speakers endeavoured to claim that by our presence there we had won a great victory, insofar as "the right of Derry people to march and meet peacefully in their own city had now been re-established." This was a gross distortion I felt, for if the original plan had been carried out we would have dispersed and gone home, thus kow-towing to Craig and his cohorts. I saw neither victory nor defeat as we had yet to walk from A to B along the original route without interference. Some DCAC members verbalised their concerns about what line I might take, as my turn came to speak. I began my address by saying, "Like James Doherty, I too come from a long line of butchers, but I do not believe in mincing my words." As far as the left was concerned Craig's ban had been broken only by default and other methods would have to be agreed and implemented at a conclave before appearing at court.
On the morning of November 18th the October 5th defendants duly appeared at the Bishop Street court. This day would show what positive working class action could achieve, over and above sporadic street battles with well-equipped police. Our youth, regardless of the numbers involved, suffered proportionally greater injuries than their uniformed opposition, who had the full backing of a ruthless state machine. Craig personified the Orange psyche when he banned civil rights demonstrators from within or on Derry's Walls. This was their Orange Mecca, and collectively Unionism was still suffering from the siege mentality of the 1600s. Once a curfew bell toiled the knell of parting day for native Catholics: they had to be out of the city walls after it rang. Now instead of a bell there stood the sectarian RUC who manned its ancient Gates, as if King James had just returned again from France to claim his English crown. We were not a foreign army of invaders and the very Walls themselves had been built from our demolished forts, abbeys, public buildings and dwelling places more than three centuries before. The Derry working class would do something that even King James and his European allies never did. We would push aside its latter-day defenders, and seize the city and the world headlines. We would physically demand the right to simply walk on our own Irish streets, when and where we choose, and in a non-sectarian fashion to boot.
This was the day for the proletariat to assert its rights. It would mark a high point in the history of Derry's working class. It would be a day that would long be remembered by thousands of chanting demonstrators who would tell their children and grandchildren how with bare hands they answered the call and made their way from their respective places of employment, towards the banned area, not knowing what savage repression awaited them. This series of demonstrations had been sparked off by the hearing of prosecutions against 46 of us who took part in the banned march of October 5th. Some fifty people were refused entry to the public gallery of the courthouse, as the cases were being heard. Only the defendants, witnesses and members of the press were allowed by the police to enter the court building. The principle of 'Justice being seen to be done' was of course again being denied to the general public. That is not to say that we ever got justice with a packed gallery. The crowd outside swelled to about 100 and when the hearing inside was about fifteen minutes in progress a group of about 50 tried to get into the building. They were physically blocked by police at the main doorway.
There was an appeal by the DCAC's chief steward, Paul Grace, a member of the local Labour Party, who told the crowd they could only damage the cases being heard inside by demonstrating. Councillor James Doherty, who was on the Duke Street march, also spoke. After some tough talking with the police, a senior RUC officer relented and allowed about a dozen relatives of the defendants to enter the court. Outside, four members of the DHAC arrived carrying placards, one of which read 'Justice on Trial Today', and proceeded to parade in front of the courthouse and police until the hearings ended.
Some of the defendants, including Gerry Fitt MP and Ivan Cooper, seemed quite content to be lifted shoulder-high and be carried down Bishop Street, through The Diamond and Shipquay Street to Guildhall Square. The crowd had grown to around 300 and was singing 'We Shall Overcome'. By taking such action, technically inside the Walls, the ban was actually being defied. The police, geared up to stop 'intruders coming from outside the Walls, were caught on the hop yet again! This march from the courthouse was a good humoured affair after the lively court proceedings, yet it ended in a short clash with police on the steps of the Guildhall, just outside the Walls. The RUC never seemed to understand that their every inept move was giving even greater fuel to our own publicity engine, and that when Derry shouted, now, the world was really listening. Again they would let their bigoted hearts rule their empty heads. Fitt, and we other leading defendants, merely wished to address the gathering of supporters and to use the Guildhall entrance steps as a platform. Officials rushed to shut the iron gates as they believed we had come to enter the building - which even foreign journalists were quick to point out was our 'City Hall', built by ourselves, the rate-paying citizens!
Not content with the gates being shut, the police assaulted people as they moved through the crowd. Fitt, Cooper, Agnew and a few other defendants addressed the meeting and appealed for calm, in the certain belief that the police were trying to provoke the general public yet again. The crowd did not go home as advised, but rather marched off again, retracing their steps through Shipquay Gate to The Diamond, and down Butcher Street - the long way home for most of them. Craig's ban had been broken twice within less than an hour, and all his Queen's water cannon and all his own RUC 'A' men and 'B' men couldn't put his stupid ban together again. Down along the docks the natives were feeling equally restless. About half-an-hour after the Guildhall crowd had taken their illegal route home, some 400 dockers left their work, leaving the tools of their trade behind them. They staged a march through the city centre to their union headquarters. As they pushed past police they sang 'We Shall Overcome' - now a song of which almost everybody knew at least the first verse and chorus. They told the press that they were protesting against recent police assaults at the Guildhall. They marched down Ferryquay Street and Orchard Street where they staged a sit~down in the middle of the road.
At their request their branch secretary, George Hamil, undertook to send telegrams to Captain O'Neill and Harold Wilson, the Prime Ministers of N. Ireland and Britain. The march leader was a Phil Doherty, who said he hoped that these messages might assist in righting wrongs which had been done in Derry, especially those affecting Derry dockers and their families and to highlight and protest against the incidents which occurred at the Guildhall. The dockers were addressed by Vincent Coyle and John Hume. The police withdrew some distance after the latter told their officers, "we can keep the peace ourselves. We don't need you." After their branch secretary promised that he would send the telegrams and urged them to return to work immediately, the dockers formed up and marched back to the docks behind the Guildhall, via Newmarket Street, Ferryquay Street and Shipquay Street. On their way they sang civil rights songs and chanted "SS-RUC!" At the dockside meeting, John Hume, later to be a founder member of the SDLP, a Westminister and Euro MP, congratulated the dockers on their spontaneous action and said that it was action like that which showed the world that their spirit was the spirit of Derry.
Some of the leading defendants went to the City Hotel after the court proceedings. Others, including myself, retired to the upstairs lounge of the Grandstand after the dockers' protests. We felt that the ban must not only be broken, but be broken by as many people as possible and as often as possible, to make it a complete nonsense and to discredit Craig politically so that he would never try the same tactic ever again. The meeting, which included some of the original Duke Street march organisers, agreed that we would break up and approach trade unionists and workers directly throughout the city. My task was to approach shop stewards at a shirt factory immediately opposite the bar. This was the area in which I was born and had spent all my teenage years so I was ideal for the purpose, and was already well-known as a civil rights activist. I addressed the shirt factory employees from a work-bench. The speech was short and the reaction was sweet; they merely wished to know what time they should down tools for an hour of protest. With their wholehearted support I visited other factories in the Queens Street-Strand Road area. Sometimes I didn't even have to speak at all. The word was being spread throughout the city, and had reached a few shirt factories before me.
At the agreed time, shortly before 3 pm, about 1,000 factory workers left their work benches in about half a dozen factories and organised a march, again through the banned centre of the city. One of those pictured leading one of the marches was a determined-looking Nelly McDonnell who had fought her own lonely fight some months previously in Harvey Street. The sight of defiant, chanting and singing female workers seemed to strike more terror into the police than the dockers had done earlier, which I noted as highly interesting at the time.
There was a wonderful feeling of class solidarity as the streets became filled with waves of human protesters whose fine voices sang of a new tomorrow, their feet marching ever forward, and along the way the police were pushed aside while being bombarded with chants such as "Gestapo!" and "The workers, united, shall never be defeated!" Everyone pressed on until they reached The Diamond where they were addressed by several leaders of the civil rights movement. Messrs. Hume and Cooper, who had remained in the city centre area since the dockers' demo, were the most prominent speakers. Cooper told them: "On behalf of the DCAC I congratulate you. Well done. The women of Derry have for years borne the brunt of unemployment and bad housing conditions."
May Duggar, a spokesperson for her fellow workers, made it plain that they were marching to defy the minister's ban on marches through the walls of Derry, and would be back again if he imposed another similar ban. Eamonn McCann told the marchers: "You have shown today that Mr Craig's ban is not worth the paper it's written on. The factory girls of Derry have walked all over Herr Craig's ban." After listening to other speakers, the women then re-formed and marched through Shipquay Gate yet again and down Strand Road, chanting even louder as they passed the main RUC station, before their chosen dispersal point at Great James Street. Workers from other occupations also staged their own marches that same afternoon, and everywhere there was a tangible sense of intense jubilation.
That night, pro-Craig loyalist males from the nearby Fountain Street district attacked women shirt workers as they emerged from the Cerdic Factory at the junction of Abercorn Road and Wapping Lane at about 11 pm. This hostile element had targeted the factory because it was the nearest to them and possibly because it was also managed by Ivan Cooper, a Protestant who was now a leading civil rights figure. Bottles were thrown and women employees screamed and tried to get away from the onslaught. Two of the workers required hospital treatment. An historic day was thus ended, and the famous Walls of the Maiden City had been well and truly breached.
November 19th witnessed yet another historic meeting in Derry Guildhall, called by the DCAC to present a report to the public on completion of their month's brief. An attendance of over 5,000 people was recorded, packing the main hall, minor hall, corridors, stairs and other areas, as well as overspilling into Guildhall Square. Internal and external public address systems were set up beforehand. A minute's silence was observed as a mark of respect on the death of Mr White of Leenan Gardens, the father of one of the October 5th march organisers. It was decided by the meeting that the Committee would be re-elected by acclaim: that their term of office would continue until full civil rights were won. Names recommended for inclusion were Mrs McKimm and Eamonn McCann. Among the Committee members who addressed the large gathering were Messrs B. Kelsall, F. O'Doherty, D. McCIenahan, B. Hynes, J. Hume, P.L. Doherty, J. Patton and P. Grace. From the audience the following spoke: Messrs E. McCann, Alderman J. Hegarty, M. O'Leary, G. 'the Bird' Doherty, J. Campbell, J. Carlin, S. Keenan, and women speakers included Breege McFadden and the journalist and women's rights campaigner Nell McCafferty. A collection was taken up from the audience to defray campaign expenses.
Day 47 of the 'Fifty Day Revolution' ended with yet another meeting of the Committee. There was some concern expressed at the fact that demonstrations were now becoming 'spontaneous'. The Labour Lawyer, Vincent Hanna proposed that a statement be issued to the press urging no demonstrations unless approved by the DCAC. This was carried and reflected the tension that was being created between the 'moderates' and the 'radicals', as hints of the events about to unfold would result in a battle for hearts and minds. The Committee also expressed concern that several stewards were reporting victimisation at their places of work and promised that this would be investigated and should be deplored. Talk by stewards of organising a boycott of firms which were responsible for victimisation was generally frowned upon. At this November 21st meeting I was elected as education officer, and this position was linked to a project to recruit qualified personnel to work on an independent Development Plan, e.g. to produce our own second Wilson report.
The real significance of the 'spontaneous' demonstrations of dockers and shirt factory workers in Derry may in time be fully revealed. Radicals believe that Craig's position was seriously undermined, which was the aim of the demos in the first place. When official documents are released after the '30-year rule' we may yet find that these were the straw that broke the Stormont camel's back and resulted in speeding up the limited reform package which followed on Day 48 of 'the revolution'.
On that day, councillors responded to an urgent invitation from Prime Minister O'Neill to come and see him at Stormont. It is significant that Craig was not in attendance, suggesting that the 'hard man' had been turned into a man of straw behind the Unionist screens. The PM's message was delivered without much ceremony, quite abruptly and at some speed. In short, the Londonderry Corporation and the Rural Council were to be suspended and a commission appointed to carry out the Derry Development Plan. This was the first of several bombshells that would be dropped on local hard-liners from their own leaders on high. The asylum-keepers were getting their marching orders at long last. They effectively lost control of Derry City and beyond on November 22nd 1968. They were naturally devastated, while the civil rights movement was elated.
Next day the reform proposals of the Stormont government were examined in detail and the Committee's attitude was defined under six headings:
1. it was decided to welcome the introduction of a recognised points system in housing;These points were released to the press and the statement concluded:
We congratulate the people of this historic city on what has been achieved to date and ask them to continue to exercise restraint. We feel confident of their support when we call for it again.The last lines hinted strongly that the DCAC was prepared to give O'Neill and the Stormont government some breathing space. The DHAC began to talk of 'a truce' and issued a statement calling for the pressure to be maintained. Radicals elsewhere had their own agendas which included breaking any alleged truce with Stormont. The PD began to work out a strategy whereby such a break could be achieved.
Against this background the November meeting of the Londonderry Corporation was certainly not to be missed. For all anti-Unionists it was a jubilant affair with the public gallery filled with people who had come to gloat at the Corporation's latest misfortunes and see how the poor souls would be taking it all. Every human emotion surfaced during its death throes. There were only three statutory meetings left to hold. November was therefore the first night of the wake for one-party minority Unionist rule in Derry. We opened our vocal chords and began to sing 'Auld Lang Syne' as the meeting drew to a close. The choice of song was both appropriate and symbolic. In short, it heralded a victory for common sense achieved by the common people. It was they, and they alone who had endured and won!
December 1968 was indeed a busy month. The first issue of Reality, published in early 1969, (to coincide with the arrival of the PD march) reported under the heading, 'Guildhall Hunger Strike':
On December 9th, six homeless families took up abode in Derry Guildhall and refused to move. These included Mr & Mrs Ambrose Moore; Mr Don Kerr, 16 Donegal Place; Mrs Gorman, 55 Spencer Road,. Mr P Bradley, 269 Bishop St, Mr & Mrs Healey, 30c Dove Gardens; Mrs Bridget Bond, 40 Foyle Road, Mr Tony Doherty (student) and a 15 year old machinist Patrick Hutton. The latter three are active members of the DHAC and joined Mr Moore in a hunger-strike lasting 35 hours.After meetings with the mayor and the standing committee of the Corporation the Moore family received temporary accommodation. A promise was made that the cases of the other families would be considered and the sit-in ended, agreeing to leave the Guildhall at 5.45 pm, after spending the night there. On December 14th, members of the DHAC were back, this time picketing "against the lack of proper sanitary facilities in hundreds of Rachman-owned flats in the city. Placards included such slogans as 'Homes not Slums', 'Bring Sanity to the Sanitary Department', and called for the dismissal of the city Executive Sanitary Officer, Mr Drayson." The DHAC objected to the fact that this official refused to close down slums and was "against the Housing Trust closing down good houses in the redevelopment area". It must be said that Drayson and some other officials, over recent years, had expressed many concerns in their departmental reports, but these were subjected to the now traditional deaf ear and blind eye approach of the city's ruling elite. They also were victims of the reactionary cocktail called discrimination that, by its very nature, required blending housing allocation with sectarian electoral politics.
On Monday 16th, with the full team of Labour Lawyers in place,
including its chief spokesperson Vincent Hanna, a new twist in
the October 5th saga was enacted at Derry Petty Sessions. Our
cases, and those linked to some 87 other summonses, were granted
an adjournment for five months. This amounted to an amnesty for
the large number of civil rights protesters threatened with prosecutions
in Derry, Armagh, Dungannon and Strabane. Also included in this
gesture were those Unionists who had resorted to violence against
peaceful marchers, during counter-demonstrations and other incidents.
The police, faithful servants of the Unionist regime, were of
course not excluded by the terms laid down by Barry Shaw, QC,
senior counsel for the prosecution. Conveniently, there was no
mention by Shaw of actions taken against the police during his
legal address to that court.
 Eamonn McCann at this meeting was full of praise for the DCAC. He commented thus: "I have had many disagreements with members of the Committee, but last Saturday when I looked at 15,000 to 20,000 Derry people off their knees and ready to fight for their rights, I realised we had a lot to be thankful for in having this committee. "
 Sean Keenan also spoke from the floor of the Guildhall that
evening. Almost a quarter of a century later the front page of
'Saoirse - Irish Freedom' would report thus: "As we went
to press we learned the sad news of the death on March 3rd of
Sean Keenan, of Derry, Honorary Vice-President of Republican Sinn
Fein, in Altnagelvin Hospital, in his native city. He was 78.
Ruairi O'Bradaigh, President, Republican Sinn Fein, paid an immediate
tribute to Sean Keenan: 'He endured a lifetime of struggle for
the freedom of Ireland. Sean was interned for a total of 16 years
in the Six Counties yet never stood in a court in his life'." ('Saoirse',
No. 71, March, 1993).
CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.
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